Although Windows XP was 64-bit, it wasn’t until Microsoft released Windows Vista that consumers really had to decide whether to buy the 32-bit or 64-bit.
Windows 7/8/10 also comes in 32- and 64-bit versions, and if you chose 64-bit, you might have noticed that you have two Program Files folders on your hard drive. Read on to learn the difference between 32-bit and 64-bit Windows and why the operating system needs two separate folders to store program data.
Windows 32 and 64 bit
The real difference between 32-bit and 64-bit Windows is how much memory the operating system can address. “Address” simply means “track.”
A 32-bit version of Windows 7/8/10 (like previous 32-bit versions of Windows) can address up to 4,294,967,296 bytes of information. This is 4 GB of memory. In theory, a 64-bit operating system can handle up to 1,8446,744,073,709,551,616 bytes of information.
That’s 16.3 billion gigabytes. However, the consumer version of Windows 7 has a memory limit of 192 GB, which still exceeds the 8-16 GB physical limit for most motherboards. For Windows 8 that’s 512GB and for Windows 10 that’s a whopping 2TB for memory caps!
Moving from a 32-bit to a 64-bit operating system is more than just a jump in addressable memory. This is a transition to a completely different method of tracking data. This is why hardware (like a sound card) requires a completely different driver to run on 64-bit Windows.
Two folders for program files in Windows
If you have a 64-bit version of Windows, you may have noticed that you have two Program Files folders on your hard drive.
One is simply labeled Program Files and the other Program Files (x86). The first folder is the default location for all your 64-bit programs. It doesn’t have an extra label at the end, because on a 64-bit operating system, 64-bit applications are expected to be placed in this folder.
The second folder labeled Program Files (x86) is the default location for all your 32-bit applications. In a sense, this is a folder for legacy software left over from the days of 32-bit operating systems. The x86 part of the folder name refers to the 32-bit x86 architecture from which the first 32-bit processors such as the 386, 486, and Pentium processors were developed.
Unfortunately, switching from 32-bit to 64-bit applications and operating systems is not as easy as Microsoft would like. To make the transition, every software vendor, hardware manufacturer, and user would suddenly have to stop building and use anything built on 32-bit architecture and start using 64-bit. This is completely impractical because most people don’t want to just throw away their hardware and software investments and buy everything new again.
Microsoft’s solution for this transition from 32-bit to 64-bit was to add legacy support for most 32-bit applications. In other words, most 32-bit applications will run in a 64-bit operating environment.
To make the transition easier, Microsoft has mandated that all 32-bit applications should be loaded into the Program Files (x86) folder by default, and not be mixed with real 64-bit applications in the regular Program Files folder.
Windows uses a kind of emulator to run 32-bit applications on 64-bit Windows. You may have seen folders with the term WOW64 on your system. WOW64 stands for 32-bit Windows on 64-bit Windows. Whenever you run a 32-bit program and it needs access to the program files directory, it is easily redirected to C: Program Files (x86) using WOW64.
You can quickly see which programs on your computer are 32-bit and which are 64-bit just by looking at the two folders.
Every couple of months, I usually check the software developer website to see if they have released a 64-bit version of the program. Sometimes you have to dig a little to find the 64-bit version of the program. Most vendors, even today, still use 32-bit as their primary download. For example, you can install the 64-bit version of Office 365, but it doesn’t download by default.
However, most applications will soon be 64-bit, eliminating the need for multiple Program Files folders. However, even Microsoft, with the release of the 64-bit version of Windows Vista, was unable to develop and release the 64-bit version of Office 2007 released at the same time. In addition, many Microsoft Store apps are still 32-bit by default in Windows 10.
Keep in mind that by the time we all move to 64-bit applications, it’s likely that talking about 128-bit architectures will force us to go through the whole process again. Enjoy!